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County Council May 21

No millage rate increase for 2010
But budget deliberations still incomplete

Warwick Jones

Deliberations over the 2010 budget were expected to be completed at last night’s Finance Committee meeting. But they weren’t and another special meeting is to be set for next Tuesday. Council decided that there would be no increase in the millage rates and set staff the task to make suggestions as to closing the small difference – about $700,000 - between projected spending and revenue.

If there were word that described last night’s meeting, it was confusion. Council members debated and suggested ways to restrain any millage increase. Some ideas are still to be considered by staff but some were rejected because they were contrary to County policy or a red flag to rating agencies. As staff frequently pointed out, recurring expenditures had to be matched with recurring revenues. One- time surpluses in certain funds could be matched only with one-time expenditures. So there were many attempts to reshuffle items in the budget to absorb one–time surpluses and fund projects, particularly the initial staffing of the jail. Council members frequently were breaking out of session to confer with others and particularly County Attorney Dawson. Indeed, one Council member did not even attend, or barely attended, an executive session.

The session opened with a presentation by staff which suggested the increase in the millage rate for the Debt Service Fund could be cut from “no more the 2 to no more than 1” because of transfers and deferrals. Shortly following this, Council member Condon moved that there be no increase in either the Debt Service Fund or the General Fund millage rates. She also proposed that $1.5 million of Fund Balances be used to immediately fund Parking Garage repairs. This would free $500,000 a year in additional parking revenues. These revenues could be transferred to the Debt Service Fund and go a large way in negating the need for a millage increase.

Council member Condon made a number of other suggestions as to where funds could be obtained and where they should be spent. So did other Council members with Council member McKeown suggesting that monies also could be drawn from the Rainy Day Fund (These are very rainy days). And perhaps the most important issue remains the $2.1 million needed to hire and train staff for the opening of the jail. Council member Condon said that that this spending could be deferred though other Council members thought other wise, saying that after spending $100 million for a chronically needed jail, it did not make sense to defer its opening to save $2.1 million.

Staff now has the task of balancing the budget working under the Council-directed policy of steady millage rates. Sifting through all the suggestions made last night, we suspect that the monies will be found, largely from fund balances. But whether items can juggled within the separate accounts to allow the use of these fund balances will be the challenge to the staff.

We expect staff will succeed or come close to success. But we wonder how much pain will be felt by the community if there were an increase of 1 mil either in the General Fund or the Debt Service Fund. A 1 mil increase is equal to about $12 per $200,000 of assessed value. But it was not the amount that concerned some Council members; it was a matter of principle. To raise millage rates in these tough times was just not right. But if staff comes back with a balanced budget and no provision for the funding of the initial staffing for the jail, there will be an intense and bitter battle on Council.

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